On Friday evening I went to my local Labour Party meeting in Oxford. What we had hoped would be a victory celebration was instead an inquest. Not into our local results – our brilliant MP for Oxford East Andrew Smith saw his vote go up by 7.5% and his once marginal seat now has a 15,280 majority; while Sally Copley in Oxford West & Abingdon increased Labour’s vote share and raw vote for the first time since 1997 – but into a national disaster.
That meeting made me proud to be a Labour member. It was huge – the best part of 100 people. Many of the attendees were from the 30000 new members who have joined in recent weeks. It was pluralistic – many different competing theories of why we had lost and how we could win again were put forward. It was realistic about the mountain ahead but determined not to give up climbing it. And it was united. Not in the sense of there being uniformity of views – there was the opposite, with ideas expressed from Bennite hard left to New Labour with many others defying categorisation! But in the sense of a shared set of values, mutual respect for others’ views (every contribution was met with applause), solidarity, comradeliness – the spirit in which we just campaigned.
My guess is that the majority of CLP meetings will have been held in a similar spirit of solidarity, sadness, mourning, and genuine debate – unity but not uniformity. Certainly the debate between the five leadership candidates at the Progress conference on Saturday sounds as though it was conducted in this spirit.
We are going to need to understand how to do unity without uniformity, how to conduct an honest debate and a robust democratic election without descending into civil war, if our party is going to survive. Get this next few months wrong, let rancour and spite and score-settling triumph over solidarity and mutual respect, and we risk turning a desperate political situation into a terminal one.
Would that every comrade was displaying the level-headedness going on at a local level.
Online I can read a constant flow of tweets from friends on the Blairite right whose tone ranges from a smug “I told you so”, through dancing on Ed Miliband’s political grave, to mad calls to break the union link (but not before having a final war in the style of Götterdämmerung, with no actual indication of how Len McCluskey can be beaten through the medium of Twitter). Despite repeated invocations from this quarter, I have yet to see the second coming of Tony Blair, unless he is very heavily disguised.
Meanwhile on the Hard Left there are comrades exhibiting the kind of denial of electoral reality normally only achievable through consuming large quantities of Class A drugs. Apparently the Tories winning increased majorities in many marginal seats, and UKIP eating into our core vote is evidence that we were not leftwing enough. Hmmm. Perhaps we could avoid spending the next five years experimenting with whether the electorate really wants us to be more leftwing. Oh, and apparently everything is the fault of the Blairites – the same ones who are complaining they were marginalised for the last eight years.
If this was all people letting off steam online I wouldn’t be so worried. But in Scotland it just got real. We just saw a major trade union – the one I have proudly been a member of since 1993 – drive from office the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. The kind of internecine feuding we saw over the Falkirk seat was disproportionate enough when we actually held Falkirk and there was something to fight over. Carrying on that feud over the ashes of the Scottish Labour Party when Falkirk is now a safe SNP seat is nuts. The self-destructiveness of it disgusts me. We don’t have a spare politician of Jim Murphy’s calibre to be throwing away the one we do have. We have a Holyrood election this time next year and have just decided to waste months on a leadership election. I get that Len McCluskey is angry about Falkirk, and under pressure from SNP members in Unite, but this episode was inexcusable. We have enough wounds inflicted by the SNP already without inflicting more on ourselves.
As for the veiled threat, subsequently retracted, of disaffiliation if Labour doesn’t pick the correct leader, in a democracy you harm the candidate you back more than you help them if you resort to blackmail.
I’m worried that the shrillness of tone I’m hearing about the leadership election will turn what should be a serious, democratic choice about how we get the party back on track into a draining and divisive sectarian battle that will turn off new members, not inspire them.
I’m worried that the union link is under threat from extremes of both right and left and without it the party may die, whether slowly through disconnection with the working classes or fast through lack of funding to actually operate.
I’m worried that a General Election that showed that our coalition of support was too narrow is being responded to by people trying to lop off bits of that narrow coalition and delegitimise the unions or the Blairites, not look at how we can broaden it.
I’m worried that too many people think the real enemy is in our own party, not David Cameron.
I’m worried that for a party promoting a vision of a kinder, gentler society governed by solidarity, fraternity and justice, we seem way too hasty to resort to brutishness, backstabbing and fixing in our dealings even with each other.
I’m worried that we are exaggerating the differences between leadership candidates who are broadly in the same place ideologically and that the labelling and smearing of people inside our own party is just providing the Tories with a box full of attack lines to use against whoever wins.
I’m worried that insulting references to “skipping a generation” risk doubling down on the mistake we made by skipping a generation in 2010 – we just keep feeding our talented young leaders faster and faster into Lynton Crosby’s meat grinder before they are experienced enough. And that this call is completely contradictory given it is made by people who don’t want us to trash our record in government (“New Labour policies good! People who actually implemented New Labour policies bad and consigned to the dustbin of history!”).
The members at my local Labour Party meeting on Friday night deserve better than this. They deserve calm, rational, comradely debate. They deserve leaders of our party and our affiliates who don’t turn a crisis into a meltdown. They deserve not uniformity, but unity.